In April 2010, India brought into force the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, acknowledging the state’s responsibility to provide free and compulsory education to all children from the age of six to 14 years. The act was a consequence of Article 21A being inserted into the Constitution that made elementary education a fundamental right.

As the rights-based framework completed a decade earlier this year, elementary education in government schools, especially for children from rural areas and the urban poor, is witnessing unprecedented times due to challenges posed by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

With schools closed due to physical distancing norms, education has gone online. But can internet-based learning truly be an alternative for children studying in government schools, and can the education that they are guaranteed under the RTE Act actually be provided to those who lack access to technology and the internet?

According to UNESCO data, more than 143 million primary school children and more than 133 million secondary school children in India are affected by school closures due to the pandemic. Almost 60% of children in India between Class 1 to 8 received their education from government schools in 2016, statistics published by the Unified District Information System for Education show.

Net access

In 2018, only 23.8% households across India had internet facilities, according to the government’s Key Indicators of Household Social Consumption on Education in India. States such as Odisha, West Bengal and Karnataka had fewer than 9% rural households with internet access. Moreover, there is a sharp gender divide: While 25% of Indian males are able to use the internet, only 14.9% females can.

The number of people with mobile devices that could access the internet is also insignificant. As per the Broadcast India Survey 2018, India’s 1.3 billion people possess only 300 million smartphones. Such dismal ability to access the internet is bound to severely impact the learning curve of children in government schools if an internet-only approach is adopted.

Moreover, states cannot take it for granted that parents will provide their children with the technology necessary to access learning resources over the internet. For parents earning minimum wages, sending children, especially girls, to school has always been a difficult decision. The additional burden of providing a smartphone or a device with internet access may push them to the brink, and result in an irreversible and premature withdrawal of their children from the public school system.

This prohibitive expectation is also contrary to the obligations under the RTE Act, which guarantees free and compulsory elementary education. Under Section 3 of the RTE Act, “free education” implies that no children – other than a child who has been admitted to a school that is not supported by the government – shall be liable to pay any kind of fees or charges or expenses that may prevent them from pursuing and completing elementary education.

The term “compulsory education” casts an obligation on the appropriate Central or state government, under Section 8 of the RTE Act, to provide and ensure compulsory admission, attendance and completion of elementary education by every child of the age of six to 14.

The RTE Act guarantees free and compulsory education to all children aged six to 14 years. Credit: José Morcillo Valenciano/Flickr

Government action

It is also the government’s duty to provide educational infrastructure, including school building, teaching staff and learning equipment. The expectation that students will access technology to receive education at their own cost, and the failure to provide requisite infrastructure by governments, including learning equipment – both fall foul of the RTE Act.

In Jammu and Kashmir, the situation is even more bleak. Because a required modification to a 1954 Presidential Order was never carried out, the fundamental right to elementary education was never extended to Jammu & Kashmir. Instead, elementary education in the Valley was governed by a 2002 state legislation, which lacked binding obligations and a framework comparable to the RTE Act.

The provisions of the RTE Act were extended to Jammu & Kashmir only after it officially became a Union Territory, on October 31, 2019. However, restrictions on internet services imposed in the Valley on August 5, 2019, still remain in place. Therefore, access to education has been interrupted for all children in the Union Territory.

Keeping this in mind, states must either make available the necessary resources to students of government schools, or come up with viable alternatives to internet-based learning. One such mechanism has already been implemented in Kerala, where classes are being broadcast on a free-to-air television channel. Although this does not ensure that students will be monitored, it does provide much wider reach, since total television penetration in India as per the Broadcast India Survey 2018 was at 66% and the number of individuals with access to television was 835 million.

States must also incentivise children to return to school when the situation normalises. This is important not only for elementary school students but also for those beyond Class 8, as these students are more vulnerable to dropping out due to factors such as having to pay for education after Class 8 and impaired learning during the lockdown. This could be achieved by extending the ambit of the RTE Act for education up to Class 12.

The Ministry of Human Resource Development stated in early 2019 that proposals from various state governments for such an extension of the RTE Act were under consideration. If implemented with urgency, such a reform would be extremely timely and pertinent.

In 1993, the Supreme Court observed that “‘more money is spent and more attention is directed to higher education than to – and at the cost of – primary education. … Neglected more so are the rural sectors, and the weaker sections of the society.”

That situation must be dispelled once and for all. Overcoming the coronavirus crisis cannot be at the cost of India’s children in the public education system.

Rohan Deshpande is a practicing advocate based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @RohanDesh13.